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Retaking the City

[1]2,092 words

What does “urban” mean to you? Some will imagine ancient Athens, 19th-century Paris, or Istanbul in the time of the sultans, but to most Americans the term was, until the last decade, a polite pejorative for the hollowed out cores of our struggling cities and the black culture that remained. 

The fall of the American city throughout the latter half of the 20th century has been exhaustively documented and analyzed. These facts and narratives are in no danger of being lost. However, now that three generations of adults have come of age in the suburbs, Americans — particularly of the middle-class white variety — have lost their frame of reference for urban ways of living.

Cities are the crucibles where our civilization was cast. To surrender the city is to deny ourselves the ability to concentrate our intellectual, social, and financial capital to advance ourselves and the world. Reclaiming our place at the centers of civilization will require a two-step process. First we must release ourselves from our vicious cycle of urban self-denial, then we must execute a strategy to reclaim the city that dodges pitfalls, both past and current.

Suburbia emerged as a promise to combine the advantages of city, town, and rural living environments. It was an escape for the whites from the polluted, late industrial urban cores and neighborhoods rife with racial strife. Enabled by automobile mass production and massive federal investments in highways, it seems that middle-class whites were able to leapfrog forced integration programs such as the Fair Housing Act by making their own rules — and exercising their natural in-group preference — in uncharted territory. In reality, the causes and effects of this process were less glamorous.

We hear much talk of gentrification — and I’ll address the contemporary manifestation later on — but the longest legacy of gentrification that we still see today is the ongoing war of suburbanites on farmers. The self-sufficient farmer is an icon of the American mythos, but suburbia’s romantic allusions to farm life, with its large tracts of land that must be constantly maintained (but tragically only produce useless mulch) don’t quite live up to the image, particularly where the wondrous and peculiar noises and odors of farm life are concerned. In fact, the happy young upwardly mobile families found this so distasteful they sued farmers — whose families generally have been maintaining the land for generations — to cease their incessant productive use of land. They won, and as a result, “they came to the nuisance” is no longer a valid defense for the embattled farmer. States enacted right-to-farm laws several decades later, but it was ultimately too little too late.

But we need not look to history to see evidence of the bizarre logic underpinning suburbia. A quick glance on Google Maps reveals mile after square mile of whimsically and pointlessly meandering avenues, branching out into ever more isolated cul-de-sacs. Any office or shop is surrounded by a moat or maze of parking. One may observe at this arrangement and conclude, from any kind of practical transportation and infrastructure perspective, that this is the least efficient design for human settlement possible. How can this possibly be solvent?

The answer is simply that it’s not — not by a long shot. Despite being subsidized, regulated, and otherwise pampered by the state, it still manages to limp along on life support. Seven times as much public funds go to support the operation of the private car specifically as go to support public transportation. The FHA’s Single Family Home Loan program and the Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction subsidize the suburban home-building industry to the tune of over 400 billion dollars per year (Compare to the 37 billion dollars per year in subsidies to renters provided through HUD). Furthermore, while all single-family homeowners receive subsidy, only low-income multifamily renters receive subsidy, incentivizing urban ghettoization.

Despite all this, the suburban model still came crashing down in 2009, where ever more dubious financing schemes and breathless real estate boosterism finally spiraled out of control. Given this rather jagged angle of the economic playing field, the milquetoast Republican line that suburbia represents individual preferences in a free market is stunningly naïve.

The detrimental effects of suburbanization are more obvious than the causes. Keeping up with the Joneses has replaced community building and civic activity. Our culture has become value-engineered, inward facing, mass produced, commoditized, and atomized. In other words, we’ve successfully adapted to the environment we created for ourselves. The public domain has been rerouted from providing civic benefit to facilitating our isolation.

In successful cosmopolitan cities such as New York of the early 20th century, ethnic groups mingled economically while still exercising their full tendency for in-group preference. The city was a patchwork of these neighborhoods, churning and evolving naturally. People had an authentic sense of belonging in their local communities. Rich and poor rubbed shoulders, as they had plenty in common within their milieu. Upward mobility was within grasp, and the real American dream was attainable.

Fast forward to the new American dream — 30-year slavery to the managerial class and nothing but a white picket fence to show for it. How did we get here? In a post-Civil Rights, Fair Housing Act climate, in-group preference is sublimated into the closest proxy — wealth. Creeping socialist doctrine hastened the conversion to this solution. With minimum lot sizes, massive property line setbacks, and the most overzealous zoning possible, one can almost guarantee that no undesirable will move in next door, and if they do, it’s far less likely that interacting with them will be necessary. Isolation became the new status symbol of the white petit bourgeoise. The further apart the houses, the more prestigious the neighborhood. It was at this point that the vicious cycle of urban self-denial took over, and the psychological suburbanization of white America was complete.

In retreating from cities, we’ve abdicated the throne of our own culture. We’ve turned our back on the vision of physically manifesting a collectively prosperous, high-trust society. In political narratives, we’ve projected the failings of other racial groups on cities themselves for the sake of political correctness. We owe it to ourselves to do better than this.

The material cure for this is obvious — a simple scaling back of government economic intervention will wean us off our gypsum addiction as the comparative costs of suburban and city living approach reality. This is the first step to re-assessing our options under a fair light. Undoing the psychological damage, however, will require a rediscovery of city living — socially as well as physically. It will require economic, social, and legal frameworks that recognize the failure of forced integration programs and instead recognize the power of in-group preference to build high-functioning, high-trust communities.

Simply moving back in isn’t enough. In the most recent decade, there has been a major movement among Left-leaning white millennial yuppie types to explore the possibilities of urban life. This has resulted in possibly the most awkward, hilarious, and tragic colonization attempts in history.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the Mission District in San Francisco. The Mission District is a well-functioning Hispanic community known for its embrace and display of Hispanic culture, particularly the impressive and colorful murals that can be found throughout the area. To the Hispanic community in San Francisco, the Mission District is a vital home and social support network, akin to the aforementioned ethnic neighborhoods of early 20th-century New York. To the typical tourist, it’s worth a stroll to admire the art and observe the culture for an afternoon. To the rootless millennial, intellectually starved by suburban banality and craving urban experience, there is an irresistible allure of authenticity and community. They can’t help but overstay their welcomes, and the results are disastrous. The hard-earned wage of the average local Hispanic is no match for the venerable trust fund or tech salary. Piece by piece, the district is being hollowed out as markets, working class bars, and Mexican restaurants are replaced by the generic hipster establishments that are common to all faux-hip urban areas: artisan cupcake shops, dog washing salons, hot yoga studios, you can fill in the rest. The only real winners in this case, as per usual, are the landlords. Modern liberalism lacks the intellectual framework to critique this, and so these young bearded foot soldiers for globalism march onwards, devouring more of their stolen cultural capital with each soylent grin, leaving a wasteland of development that, although dense, reflects their suburban, sanitized sensibilities.

For a more generic and widespread example, consider how these strapping white interlopers are moving into black neighborhoods in cities across the United States. The result is always the same – despite living on top of one another, the backyard cookout and the organic grocery store remain homogenous. The schism between the progressive ambition and simple reality of racial integration becomes glaring.

Two competing narratives exist to diagnose and treat this self-inflicted malady. The progressive Left campaigns for economic leveling through predictably terrible ideas such as reparations, development moratoriums, rent control, and ever more bizarre schemes such as Seattle’s recent levying a soda tax to finance black public education. Their core conceit is that creating a harmonious racially-integrated society is a simple matter of engineering. These activists could benefit from a more robust understanding of both economics and human nature, or at least a brief history of their own policy suggestions.

The centrist liberal approach, however more realistic, is irredeemable. Where the progressives seek to address the problem themselves, albeit naively and misguidedly, the liberal servants of global financial capital are limited to solutions approved by their masters. Their first instinct is to raze neighborhoods, in all of their authenticity peculiar character, and replace them with higher density housing in a homogenized globalist style, either relocating former inhabitants in the new structures, as exhibits in a schizophrenic museum of forced integration, or displacing them to an off-site ghetto on the urban fringe, akin to the government’s failed urban renewal policies of the 1960s. This idea is controlling the contemporary debate by pure financial and political force. It represents a superficial compromise to progressives while continuing to serve underlying investment interests. While the progressive solution squanders urban wealth through inefficiency, the liberal solution donates it to the interests of global capital.

Because Americans as a whole still fantasize about landownership as the yellow brick road to the middle class, real-estate speculation is generally allowed to occur unfettered. Whenever tax dollars are spent on a new park, a new employer comes to town, or a neighborhood enjoys success through their own effort, an increasing number of non-local and foreign property holders siphon away that value. The remaining locals who benefit most are naturally those with the most holdings — the financial and managerial elite.

A successful approach to reclaiming the city must identify and rework these elements of parasitic globalism to allow a local white neighborhood to establish itself. Firstly, the right to exclusion and in-group selection must be recognized as it is a prerequisite to forming a high trust community. Legally this will be difficult to accomplish, but socially it is as simple as accepting human nature and forcing liberal urbanites to be honest with themselves when they consider who they don’t want in their own neighborhood and why.

Secondly, civic financing must be reformed. Income and sales taxes are regressive, leveling, and lead to economic distortion and waste. Instead, taxes should be levied on unimproved land value appreciation and be routed to the nearest schools, parks, and other local infrastructure to promote social health and interconnectedness within neighborhoods while avoiding leveling effects across culturally incompatible ones. This would cause a self-sustaining upward spiral of local civic investment shadowed by private globalist divestment. Citywide globalist divestment would shift in the interest in municipal government to serve constituents rather than global financial interests.

Ultimately, for the vitality and creative potential of cities to be restored, the city must be re-envisioned as a patchwork proving ground for ideas and cultures rather than an experiment in top-down Marxism, forced integration, and social leveling sustained by global capital. We must establish alternative self-sustaining mechanisms to ensure local accountability and funding of schools and civic infrastructure, since no community can be sustainable unless it raises its next generation in-place and provides respite for the elderly, which require more infrastructure than simply meeting the needs of a revolving cast of young adults. It is only in this framework that white civilization in America can escape atomization and inherit its own legacy of high-trust, lively, interesting, and successful communities on which to forge its identity and future.